April 1 was just another day at the office for Edmonds’ Jaime Jamison. But then the email came that changed everything.
“It’s not like I didn’t think it was coming,” he said, “but when it hit, things changed pretty fast.”
The email was from the National Guard informing Jamison that his unit was being called up to join in the recovery efforts in the wake of the March 22 Oso mudslide. Gov.Jay Inslee had acted immediately, declaring a state of emergency in Oso later the same day. While part of the U.S. Army, the National Guard can be called up by state governors in declared emergency situations such as this.
“We were given 48 hours to get our affairs in order and report,” said Jamison, who works as assistant director of advancement for the University of Washington School of Social Work. “Our boots were on the ground in Oso on April 4.”
What he and his fellow responders saw defies imagination.
“The devastation was horrific,” he said. “Some of my fellow responders had recently come back from war zones, but nothing prepared them for this. It was apocalyptic. It was total destruction.”
Jamison was part of a specialized FSE (Fatality Search and Extraction) team. The name says it all. Their job was find human remains amidst the wreckage of homes and buildings, cars and piles of twisted, uprooted, mud-encrusted trees. They were assisted by teams of search and rescue dogs trained to sniff out minute traces of human scent.
Each time a body was found, a claxon horn would sound and everyone in the area would stop to observe a moment of silence. The remains would then be bagged and borne slowly and reverently to the waiting vehicles from the medical examiner’s office.
“We made sure to show the utmost respect for those who had lost their lives,” said Jamison.
Oso is a small community where most folks know each other, and local residents were constantly present as the responders did their work sifting through the rubble and looking for any sign of missing friends and family. And despite their unimaginable losses, the community expressed heartfelt gratitude to the responders in numerous ways.
“Our lunches were prepared in the school cafeteria,” said Jamison, “and frequently contained handwritten notes from local children thanking us for what we’re doing and calling us heroes. All these kids had lost friends, relatives or acquaintances in the tragedy. It was so touching.”
On April 3, President Barack Obama declared the Oso mudslide a major disaster, clearing the way for additional help from the federal government. On April 22 the President visited the site and met separately with the news media, families and responders. No media were allowed in these last two meetings.
“It was very moving to have the President come and meet with us personally,” said Jamison. “He spoke to each of us individually and thanked us for our work and dedication. He stressed how important this work is, and that the impact will be great and long-lasting.”
From April 4-April 22, Jamison and his team were embedded in Oso without a break. Throughout this long haul, the bright spot for Jamison was the constant support from the community.
“The local residents had suffered so much in this,” he said. “But despite their tremendous losses they were always there for us, telling us we were appreciated and expressing gratitude in hundreds of small ways. They gave us a real sense of purpose, and helped us realize that we were doing something very important. It’s what got me through.”
Once he returned home, Jamison found that his experiences in Oso helped him recognize the importance of the many small things that make up everyday life in Edmonds.
“Mundane things like mowing the lawn, seeing my wife Melissa smile, making lunches for my kids Emily and Bella, and just taking a walk on Sunset Avenue took on so much meaning for me and became so special,” he said. “I find myself focusing on what’s truly important and how very fragile life is. Simplicity is bliss.”
— By Larry Vogel